For any particular organism that once existed, the probability
that it today is part of the fossil record is infinitesimally small.
A fundamental difficulty with extinction is that it is impossible to prove a negative—the absence of a species—and, therefore, to be sure exactly when extinction occurred.
—Paul D. Taylor, “Extinctions in the History of Life”
A coelacanth is a big ugly prehistoric fish. Sea monster, really, six feet, 170 pounds. An unnattractive fish, four stumpy fins poking down from his belly like arms amputated at the elbow. His jaw hinges at the skull, opens for an oversized bite, juts rusty nail teeth in every direction at once. The coelacanth first appears in the fossil record about 400 million years ago – the same time ancient marine animals began to crawl from water to land – and disappears about 60 million years ago. Extinct like the rest of the dinosaurs.
Extinct, anyway, until 1938, when a trawler fishing off the coast of South Africa hauled one up from the deep.
Marjorie Courtenay Latimer, the thirty-one-year-old curator of a tiny museum in East London, South Africa, came to the East London dock by taxi for her standing invitation to sift through the catch and spirit away interesting specimens for her collection. To her shock found the most beautiful fish she’d ever seen. Latimer plucked the ghoul from the slime of the fishheap, confirmed its identity, achieved instant paleontological celebrity. The town named the dock after her: Latimer’s Landing.
Latimer’s coelacanth was far from home, as it turned out. Fishermen in Madagascar had known about a large coelacanth population in the waters of the Indian Ocean for years. The hideous fish was often caught by mistake but thrown back, its meat barely edible for the foul-tasting oil its skin exudes even after death. No non-locals had ever asked the locals about the coelacanth, why would they, what a strange thing to ask, he was, of course, right there all along.
Species that rise from extinction are called Lazarus species. Miracles of reappearance. The coelacanth’s re-discovery was about as likely as finding a stegosaurus munching the rose bushes in your backyard.
• • •
My dead father talks when I press play. He says:
Thank you and welcome to An Evening of Really Bad Piano Music.
This cassette tape is worn thin, the audio in and out. This is a piano recital. This is a concert conceived of, produced by, starring my dead father.
Picture a spotlight on a stage in a hall in the music building of a university. Picture my father resting a wrist on the grand piano, waiting for the applause to decrescendo. He wears a dark blue suit. He is a young professor, tall and dark and of course handsome, sturdy and oaken. The corners of his mouth curve upward.
Before we get on with it, he says, deadpan, I have an announcement. There is a change to your program… (wait for it) …there will be no picture show tonight.
The audience roars. My dead father is kind of a ham. I press stop and he stops.
This is one of many tapes of many piano performances over many years, labeled and dated in my father’s sharp hand, nestled tightly in a drawer. I don’t listen to these tapes often. They are an icicle to the temple. They are a hand on a hot stove. On one tape, his performance of Prokofiev’s Toccata gives me the same shivers I get from Hubble photographs of distant galaxies. And on the tapes, his concerts are always packed, the crowds always going wild.
I know that before I was born my father chose a family and stopped entering international competitions, stopped winning them, stopped traveling to Russia and Columbia and Italy. Stopped dazzling. Settled down. Big Fish Swims Small Pond.
Of course he never stopped playing, or teaching. Until the end, anyway, when his blue suits tented his body, his dress tails turned into a skeleton clown costume, no pictures please. But then, then there was composing. He died composing.
• • •
And then there’s the Laotian rock rat. A little gray thing, a cross between a rat and a squirrel, dark fur on his back and a pooched belly. Steel-wool tail. He was already dead when Paulina Jenkins’ team of scientists discovered him at a street market in Thakhek, Khammouan in 1996, his body for sale as meat. Jenkins knew he was special. But she overshot her mark when she declared him one of an entirely new family of rodent. New animal species surface from time to time with minimal fuss, but a whole new family is exceedingly rare. Her declaration was anyway, anyway published in 2005.
Mary Dawson looked at Jenkins’ research and saw a failure of imagination. Jenkins hadn’t compared the rock rat skeleton to known specimens, especially hadn’t compared the skeleton to very, very, very old known specimens. Dawson compared. The Laotian rock rat turned out not to be a new family at all, but a member of a family previously known only through fossils.
Dawson calls him the coelacanth of rodents because the Laotian rock rat had been extinct for eleven million years. But villagers in the area are familiar with the docile animal, have trapped him for years, eaten him. They know he lives under limestone boulders, on hillsides, eats mostly plants. They know he walks toes-out, like a duck. They know he was right there, all along.
• • •
On a Tuesday my mother sends me an email. We only talk on the phone on Sundays, barring emergency, but she emails when she’s lonely.
She says, My mammogram went just fine…OUCH! And she says, I wanted to let you know what I’ve done with the tofu I had in the fridge. Has made a tofu meatloaf. She says, I’m hoping this is edible! I’ll let you know afterwards.
Her emails come from a little desk in her little apartment, a converted pole barn with a tin roof at the city limits of an Indiana town. Her two cats watch her type from their perch on the little upright piano where she teaches lessons seven days a week. She lives alone. She watches marathons of The Twilight Zone and drinks wine from a box. In the winter, my mother wears sweaters with snowmen on them. She is kind and soft. Picture a piano teacher.
At the end of her note she says, Listen, I found something interesting that is addressed to you.
• • •
The La Palma Giant Lizard is not really all that giant. He’s less than a foot long, a wall-clinger, not so different to the undiscerning eye from a pet store type. But different, yes, because he’d been extinct for 500 years before Spanish scientists found him hanging vertically from a cliffside in the Canary Islands in 2007. He’s a champion hide-and-seek player (Hey guys! I was here all along! Ha!), adapted to harsh terrain to get away from his main predator: domestic cats. He’s about four years old and, as far as anyone knows, completely alone on the island.
The resurrection of the La Palma Giant Lizard is the latest in a string of giant lizard discoveries in the Canaries. In 1995 six of his cousins were found on nearby La Gomera, and the islanders got right down to it and waged war on feral cats. They passed ordinances on cats. They built a cat registry. They constructed things called cat installations near the cliffs. The sent sterilization teams to the outskirts of the towns to numb up as many toms as they could. They sent a message: Keep your paws off our Lazarus Lizards.
Cats see the lizards as a real delicacy, prying them out of their cliff-top shelters like oysters from a shell, the leader of the lizard-finding team said. The lizards are too slow, too weighted down by themselves to get out of harm’s way. The islanders will try and try to protect them and the battles will be fierce but so is he. He was there all along.
• • •
Harmony is set in South Dakota during pioneer days. The musical follows Lena, a teenaged girl with an abusive mother who turns to a fantasy world populated by characters from the local cemetary for solace, gradually gains the courage to leave the place. My father finished the music before he died, recording the orchestrations on a synthesizer between chemotherapy sessions.
I know the music well. His last concert a live performance of the main themes. A synthesized tape with my name on it left behind. I know the music in my bones because it was the right time in my cognitive development, coupled with the wild grief of child minus parent, because of some combination of repitition and exposure, because it was just so haunting and joyful and beautiful, a vision, a creation by a dying man. Because something. Something happened and the music from Harmony became tattooed on the insides of my skull, in the space between asleep and awake. It burns and soothes, burns and soothes, every day still.
It was a project my father knew he’d die in the middle of but had to start anyway, and now it’s clear it will never be finished and it will never be produced. His partner in the effort, a theater professor at the university, abandoned Harmony after my father’s death, buried it, gone forever. The professor has since written a play that he describes as an evocative plea for understanding and compassion in a world where prejudice, misunderstanding, and cruelty are too often the norm but Harmony, I know, is dead.
• • •
In 1776, a French missionary to the Congo River Basin stumbled upon animal tracks he did not recognize. He wrote that whatever it was must have been monstrous: the marks of the claws were noted on the ground, and these formed a print about three feet in circumference.
In 1913, a German colony surveyor in the Congo River Basin heard stories. He wrote: The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size is approximately that of an elephant; at least that of a hippopotamus. It is said to have a long and very flexible neck and only one tooth but a very long one; some say it is a horn. A few spoke about a long, muscular tail like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to attack the vessels at once and to kill the crews but without eating the bodies.
In 1932 zoologist Ivan Sanderson claimed to have seen an enormous, wounded creature unlike anything he’d known flailing around in a river in Cameroon. His local guides called the animal mokele-mbembe.
In 1966 a visitor photographed a huge circular footprint made by a foot with three toes, which is interesting because hippopotami have four toes.
In 1979 a former missionary to the Congo River Basin told a story related to him by natives of the Bangombe tribe: their people had once managed to spear and roast mokele-mbembe and eat of his meat. Every single person who feasted that night died soon after.
In 1983 Congolese zoologist Marcellin Agnagna said he looked mokele-mbembe in the eye and watched and even videotaped him for twenty minutes. But Agnagna accidentally left the lens cap on his Super 8 camera and so filmed nothing.
In 2008 a Sci-Fi Channel show sent an expedition to look for mokele-mbembe and found two hippos playing in the river instead.
Mokele-mbembe means One Who Stops the Flow of Rivers.
Mokele-mbembe has a long neck and a long tail.
Mokele-mbembe does not make any sounds.
Mokele-mbembe lives underwater.
Mokele-mbembe is herbivorous.
Mokele-mbembe does not like hippos and will kill them but not eat them.
When the people of the region draw mokele-mbembe in the sand they draw the shape of a sauropod dinosaur: long neck, long tail, flat teeth, just like a Brontosaurus. When they are shown a picture of a sauropod dinosaur they say it is mokele-mbembe. Maybe, a dinosaur risen. Maybe, resurrection. Maybe he’s been there all along.
• • •
At the end of the email that says I’ve found something interesting that’s addressed to you, my mother says I was going through my music last weekend and I found in the bulk, misfiled, a piece from Dad’s musical called ‘Ballad Duet’ and at top of the page, it says ‘For Jenny’. I know what this means.
I call my mother even though it’s a Tuesday. I can’t remember the names of the pieces, I tell her, I don’t know which one ‘Ballad Duet’ is, could you but she’s already sitting down at her piano. Sets her phone where the cats perch. Plays. I know the music immediately, it’s the same but not the same but the same, same notes but different because it’s not him playing. It’s my father’s voice but in reverse, on slo-mo, sped up to chipmunk speed, through a burlap sack. Recognizable but disfigured.
She had this in a filing cabinet? Sandwiched between what? For how long?
I listen across two thousand miles of telephone and I lie on the floor in the hallway of my apartment and I don’t cry until we hang up, until she’s promised to make a tape of the piece for me, send me the original and the recording, send me this fifteen-year-old message from my father. She promises to pack it in tape and bubble wrap and when we hang up I will lie on the floor and think of my father’s voice, gravelly and sophisticated at once, nasal but booming at once, there and not there at once. I will lie on the floor and think of his voice and receive whatever comes when it comes.
* Illustration by Anna Hall